Iowa Arts Council
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Iowa Arts Council

Creative places put the ‘unity’ in ‘community’

In a year when the country has often felt pulled apart, some Iowans found ways to work together.

During the Iowa Creative Places Exchange, a conference the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs recently hosted online, leaders from nearly 50 Iowa communities discussed ways to use local art, history and culture to make their cities and towns more equitable and inclusive.

“Equity is really an approach to addressing past injustices,” said the keynote speaker, Jeremy Liu, an artist and community planner from Oakland, California. “Every community has folks who feel like they’ve been slighted. Promises have not been fulfilled, or challenges have occurred that have prevented communities from fulfilling their potential.”

That’s especially true when times are tough, he said, as 2020 has turned out to be.

“We all feel the need to retreat to what feels safe,” he said. “But what if you didn’t feel like there was a place for you?”

Liu has helped communities across the country tackle stubborn challenges related to housing, transportation and immigration. He often encourages leaders to enlist help from local artists, early in the planning process, because their creative problem-solving skills can strengthen the results.

The Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, has offered grants to encourage communities to team up with artists and designers from Iowa’s three state universities to help solve civic challenges. The town of Plymouth, for example, received an Arts Build Communities Grant to team up with student artists to make a bus-stop shelter both safer and more attractive. Ottumwa used the grant to produce a fashion show to celebrate the city’s growing diversity. Fort Dodge is using art to improve the way it collects garbage and recycling.

Student artists in Ottumwa produced a multimedia fashion show in 2018 to celebrate the city’s diversity.

“The best public art isn’t just frosting on the cake. It’s actually baked into the batter,” said David Schmitz, who leads the Iowa Arts Council. “The earlier that artists get involved, the better.”

Often, he said, the planning process can bring people together just as much as the final product. And the process can reveal other problems that may be more urgent than the ones leaders were trying to solve in the first place.

Brianne Sanchez, who directs nonprofit relations for the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, said even the best intentions to include underrepresented groups can go wrong. A nonprofit that builds a new gazebo in a struggling neighborhood, for example, and then asks neighbors what color to paint it might be surprised by their response.

“They’re like, ‘Wait, I need a new roof. I don’t want a gazebo,’” she said.

Liu, the keynote speaker, challenged representatives from Iowa Great Places as well as Iowa Cultural and Entertainment Districts to listen to the quieter voices in their communities, the ones that have been excluded or ignored.

“If someone wanted to learn about Iowa’s values, I bet you could give them a really terrific orientation through the [Iowa] Great Places. If someone wanted to learn about Iowa’s history, likewise,” he said. But “what if someone wanted to learn about Iowa’s future? How would you make someone new to Iowa feel comfortable?”

Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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Iowa Culture

Iowa Culture

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources. iowaculture.gov